For the first time in its history, the U.S. Navy fired a laser ray gun mounted on a warship, zapping — and setting fire to — an empty motorboat as it bobbed in the Pacific Ocean.
The test demonstration, which took place off the Southern California coast near San Nicholas Island, could mark a new era in Navy weaponry, officials said.
"This is very important to the Navy's future weapon systems," said Rear Adm. Nevin Carr, chief of the Office of Naval Research. "By turning energy into a weapon, we become more efficient and more effective."
Built by Northrop Grumman Corp. in Redondo Beach, the solid-state laser system could be used to blast apart incoming cruise missiles, zap enemy drones out of the sky or even shoot down ballistic missiles someday, Carr said.
"In the distant future, I can envision a day when this technology is outfitted on cruisers and destroyers," he said.
The laser's power can be also "scaled down," offering the Navy a non-lethal alternative to ward off threats such as pirates, terrorists and smugglers with an intense blast of heat, Carr said.
In the test, which took place last week, the laser gun was mounted to the deck of the retired Navy destroyer Paul Foster. The weapon was then fired at a small target vessel.
A video of the test, released by the Office of Naval Research, shows a spark on one of the target boat's motors as it bobs in the ocean. Within seconds the craft is engulfed in flames. It was a milestone because all previous tests of the laser were on firm ground, Carr said.
The video does not show the laser or how far it was from the target because of security concerns, Carr said. But he said the beam was "baseball sized" and the distance could be measured in "miles, not yards."
Carr said the technology was still years away from being used in combat.
For years, technical challenges have plagued scientists' weapon development of a solid-state laser, which generates energy beams using electricity by running electrons through solid materials such as crystals or glass.
Northrop has worked to develop the laser system at its Space Park campus in Redondo Beach under a $98-million contract that it won in July 2009.
The campus is also the site where Northrop engineers have worked on the Airborne Laser Test Bed, a missile defense program that involves a massive laser gun outfitted on a heavily modified Boeing 747. It has taken nearly 15 years and at least $4 billion to develop the chemical laser technology.
Space Park was built during the height of the Cold War and has been the development site of some of the nation's most complex weapon systems, including the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile. Scientists there took up laser research in the 1960s and made Space Park the first laboratory to develop a weapons-grade chemical laser.